The Greatest Show on Earth

When the aliens figure out that Earth is worth invading — the advance UFO team eerily appearing in the sky, a battalion of spacecraft quietly descending to scout our defenses — let’s hope they drop in over an outdoor symphonic concert.  What they would see is a species working together with such joy, precision, and ingenuity that they would surely beat a fast retreat out of our atmosphere.  More frightening than nukes would be the finale of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony: almost a hundred humans synthesizing a variety of resonating instruments — each one a masterpiece of engineering — into a stunning, beautiful whole.  That’s an Earth on a good day.

Just last week I heard Leonard Slatkin and the Pittsburgh Symphony tear through that piece, and I experienced the same kid-like joy at watching this strange and wonderful creature — the orchestra — that never leaves me.  I had just finished performing my piece The B-Sides, played as well as I’d ever heard it, and yes I did have a bit of dark rum in the dressing room after I walked offstage.  So I was pulsing with the energy of a nice performance, plus some sugar-cane warmth, when I slipped into the audience for the second half.  And I thought about the medium.

Why work in such a sprawling, complex, and, yes, unwieldy artform?

Why, indeed, when it takes so many years to get a piece released on CD?  The San Francisco Symphony, for example, will be recording this piece next year, along with Alternative Energy and Liquid Interface.  This is a moment I’ve awaited for many years, and it’s happening on a grand scale with an orchestra I am in love with.  Next season’s Beethoven and Bates festival at the SFS certainly gives the works a bright platform (though such a pairing makes my knees tremble).  But wouldn’t it have been easier to write poetry or paint?

After all, there are so many people involved in the symphonic medium.  These are not the easiest people to deal with either.  They are musicians, they have more training than a heart surgeon, and they will often remind you of that fact.  (For example, my harp parts make harpists dance like the King of Pop in order to work the pedaling fast enough, much to their chagrin.)  And as the symphonic world has seen again recently, orchestras might not play if they are not happy.  An orchestra on strike, as San Francisco was for a few weeks, does not exactly project the happy-species-working-together that we’d like those aliens to see.

But what a thing it is when it all works together.

In Pittsburgh, for example, the musicians play from the back of the orchestra, without the usual problem of the acoustic delay between strings and brass/percussion.  The fifty feet between, say, the timpani and the first violins often produces out-of-sync playing in even the best orchestras.  Not in Pittsburgh; they’ve evolved that straight out of their genes.  The chimney-sweep rhythm on sandpaper blocks that opens The B-Sides, for example, was perfectly in line with the quiet, mercurial orchestral riffs around it.  The clicking typewriter of “Temescal Noir” (played by a percussionist) locked right in with the swing rhythms of the bass clarinets.  It’s a crackerjack group, and Leonard draws wonderful sounds out of them.

I now head back to Steel City for Mercury Soul, my club/classical project.  It will be interesting to work with the same players outside of Heinz Hall.  We’ll be at Static, a club in the Strip district.  The openness of the space, its combination of dance floor and generous lounge seating, and its crystal clear sound system reminds me of San Francisco’s Mezzanine.  That’s where Mercury Soul was born five years ago with members of the San Francisco Symphony, and the show has grown and changed considerably.

With my co-conspirators Benjamin Shwartz (conductor) and Anne Patterson (director/designer), I have realized the necessity of highly dramatic production elements to guide the audience’s focus from DJing to classical sets.  You need lots of big lighting changes to cue everyone that a string quartet is about to play.  The electro-acoustic interludes that transition between these worlds have become longer and more textural, and the programming has started to look both backwards and forwards.  In Pittsburgh, for example, we have a very old work (Biber’s Battalia) and a very new one (a sinfonietta I composed for the event call The Rise of Exotic Computing).  So while the show appeals to musical adventurers in a Burning Man kind of way, the production draws on some of the crowd-control tropes of rock opera.

This many moving parts is both exhilarating and exhausting, but it’s what I love about the medium.   We are not just synthesizing sound, of course, but a lot of human emotion and passion.  It is beautiful, intoxicating, and humbling to be swept into that larger body.

If you are reading this an haven’t been to an orchestra concert lately, go.  It is, well, the greatest show on Earth (just ask the aliens).